WASHINGTON - Leaders of 25 national Jewish, Muslim, and Christian organizations are urging President George W. Bush to join with the European Union (EU) and the United Nations to make a major new commitment to forge peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
In a formal appeal to the president issued Thursday, the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East (NLIP), urged President Bush to appoint a top-level special envoy to oversee Israel's proposed disengagement from Gaza. The group urged the Bush administration to work for the execution of the plan within the larger framework of the 2003 "Road Map" for the creation of a viable, independent Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.
According to the group, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan, coupled with other recent events--the realignment of his government to include the more-dovish Labor Party, and Sunday's election of Mahmoud Abbas to succeed the late Yassir Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA)--offer an unprecedented opportunity for progress. In the light of these developments, the NLIP pledged to "mobilize our communities' support nationwide" for a more-assertive U.S. role in the process.
"Mr. President, based on the deepest beliefs in our three Abrahamic religious traditions and on past progress and current new opportunities, we believe peace is possible," the NLIP appeal stated. "And we believe determined U.S. leadership is essential for achieving peace."
The NLIP, which was created in 2003 amid a downward cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, represents almost all of the mainstream Protestant denominations--the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism; the U.S. Catholic bishops; and leaders of the largest national Muslim organizations.
It also includes several influential Christian evangelical leaders, such as the heads of Fuller Theological Seminary, the Leighton Ford Ministries, and the humanitarian group, World Vision.
"We represent a significant portion of the collective soul of religious America," said Rabbi Alvin Sugarman, head of 'A Different Future', a peace group based in Atlanta.
In addition to the appointment of a full-time presidential envoy to work with Washington's co-sponsors of the Road Map--the EU, the UN, and Russia--the group is calling for the negotiation of a timetable for "specific, simultaneous steps" to be taken by the PA and Israel under the Road Map that would be subject to "effective and highly visible" international monitoring to assure implementation by both sides.
It is also calling for the mobilizations of increased economic aid, that is also heavily monitored, to help build up the PA's ability to enforce security, prevent violent attacks on Israelis, and deliver humanitarian aid, vital services, and employment to the Palestinian people.
It also urges the establishment of benchmarks for the achievement of mutually acceptable peace accords based largely on earlier progress made under the 1993 Oslo process and the so-called "Geneva Accords,"--a model agreement worked out by representatives of Israeli and Palestinian non-governmental organizations last year.
The group said its members have been encouraged by talks with senior Bush administration officials to believe that the president shared their view that this was the moment to press all parties to resume serious peace negotiations. "This is what we're hearing from the administration itself," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism in Washington.
Indeed, the Bush administration had urged Sharon to cooperate fully with the PA in carrying out the recent presidential elections in Palestine. It also urged him to support Abbas' effort to consolidate his position, implement reforms, and strengthen the PA--whose mandate has been badly damaged by both the Palestinian intifada and Israeli reprisals.
Whether this will be sufficient to get the kind of full-scale peace effort envisaged by the NLIP's appeal remains to be seen. Both Sharon and Bush--despite having endorsed the Road Map--have also indicated strong reservations to some of its provisions.
While the Road Map called for an unconditional freeze on Israeli settlement activity, for example, settlements have continued to expand; Bush himself endorsed the "natural expansion" of existing West Bank settlements.
Indeed, Bush has generally aligned himself more with Sharon than with his Road Map partners on major Israeli-Palestinian issues--a pattern that has provoked strong protests not only from Palestinians and EU leaders, but also from some of his father's closest advisers. A notable example is Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser, who complained in the Financial Times two months ago that the Israeli leader "just has Bush wrapped around his little finger."
Apart from Bush's personal convictions, his alignment behind Sharon is also explained by pressure from the president's core constituency--notably the pro-Likud neo-conservatives and the so-called Christian Right--many of whom believe that Jews should as occupy all of the "Holy Land" as a matter of theology.
This constituency, however, was set back by Sharon's disengagement plan which would not only force Israel to withdraw settlers from Gaza but also looks to the abandonment of some small West Bank settlements that are difficult and expensive to defend.
The plan has provoked consternation among neo-conservatives in particular, some of whom, like the administration itself, are backing Sharon, while others--such as the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA)--are mobilizing against implementation of the plan. They oppose cooperation with Abbas, who they say is no different from Arafat, and claim that Sharons plan threatens the very existence of Israel.
In some ways, the NLIP's appeal represents a direct challenge to this constituency, by assuring Bush that much of the U.S. religious leadership and their congregations will rally behind a more aggressive and balanced role in peace negotiations.
If Bush moves forcefully to fulfill his vision of two viable, independent, and democratic states living side by side, he "will have broad-based, bipartisan and multi-religious forces (behind him) across America," stressed Saperstein. He added that inter-faith communities in 15 major cities across the United States were already meeting on a regular basis to promote strong support for implementing the Road Map.
"This initiative represents an exceptional effort to activate networks of people throughout the United States," said Cardinal William Keeler, the Catholic Archbishop of Baltimore.
Christian leaders who signed the appeal included the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; the Primates of the Greek and Armenian Orthodox churches; the heads of the Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, United Methodist, United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ Protestant denominations; the president of the National Council of Churches of Christ, as well as the evangelical leaders.
Jewish leaders include the president and executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; the president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association; and the heads of the University of Judaism and the Religious Action Center.
Muslim leaders include the heads of the Islamic Society of North America; the Islamic Circle of North America; as well as the directors of The Mosque Cares; the Islamic Center of America; the United Muslims of America and the American Sufi Muslim Association.
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